31 December 2013

Sound-Tracking 2013 #5 - Stoker

Happy New Year folks! Firstly as the final hours of 2013 elapse, and we all prepare to celebrate, I would like to thank anybody and everybody for reading my blog. 2013 was a much better year for output than 2012, and my ambitions for 2014 (Including a complete - and much needed - design revamp) are boundless. Without you guys taking the time to read, it wouldn't be worth doing and so my most ebullient appreciation is yours. 

The final post of 2013 is quite possibly the culmination of my "sound-tracking" project. I had originally intended to arrange ten posts, but with a late surge in reviewing and the annual end of year obligations interfering, it looks like things will halt at five. Maybe. But fear not, as I intend to make the "sound-tracking" element a more regular feature, continuing uninterrupted through the year, and not just its dying weeks. 

I will be brief on the final picks, both arising from the sound-track of Chan-Wook Park's Hitchcockian thriller "Stoker". An elegantly photographed but fundamentally trashy affair, "Stoker" capture's Park's visual fascinations, poetically applying them to this gripping tale of familial perversion. The musical score courtesy of Clint Mansell perfectly assimilates the movie's traditional structure into the sound scape, but also the seductive, ethereal undertones that render the overall product so dazing, dark and picturesque. It's a soft and subtle listen, a lovely selection on which to end the year. Also included below is the Emily Wells song "Becomes the Colour" that plays over the movie's stark final frames and credits. It conjures a graceful unease, but ultimately just sounds really measured and cool. Enjoy.

Happy 2014 guys! 

Emily Wells - Becomes the Colour 

Clint Mansell - In Full Bloom 

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2013

27 December 2013

Movie Review: 47 Ronin



47 Ronin 
2013, 119mins, 12
Director: Carl Rinsch 
Writer (s): Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini 
Cast includes: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Min Tanaka, Tadanobu Asano
UK Release Date: 26th December 2013

It’s been a tough road to multiplexes for “47 Ronin”. Delayed by over a year and rumoured to have waddled seriously over-budget, the samurai epic is already (two days into its global release) in serious danger of making “The Lone Ranger” and “R.I.P.D” appear like serviceable box-office performers. Early reviews haven’t been favourable either, cultivating the image of a belated Christmas turkey, dimming the final embers of star Keanu Reeves’ once justified claim to marquee validity. Except it’s not that bad. The film’s financial future is already dispiritingly inevitable, but if you’re willing to dabble in scrappy big screen fantasy “47 Ronin” actually comes over as gracefully watchable. It’s devastatingly underwritten and not particularly well acted, but Carl Rinsch’s feature debut looks gorgeous and manages to sustain itself over two beefy hours. Whilst watching the decadently assembled spectacle onscreen, the whiff of production woe diffuses only faintly, and it certainly doesn’t obstruct the piece’s arresting designs.

Having lived a dark and mysterious childhood, Kai (played as an adult by Keanu Reeves) is adopted into a feudal Japanese community, viewed as a second-class citizen on the basis of his mixed ancestry. When his home and love are threatened by warlord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) and witch Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi of “Pacific Rim” fame); Kai bands up with a group of recently disgraced Samurai (known as Ronin) to help return rightful governance and bring justice upon the villains. However in order to do so they will need weapons, resources and courage, not all of which are readily available in the human domains of ancient Japan.

Rinsch made his name in the world of advertising (and was mooted to helm the “Alien” reboot before it became “Prometheus”) and it shows in “47 Ronin”, a film in thrall to the power of individual images. Everything from locations, monuments, characters and creatures are endowed with imaginative and unique visual identities, often affording the feature additional points of connection with the oriental legend it incites. The action sequences are competent, but it’s the Peter Jackson-esque portrait shots and smaller details that lend “47 Ronin” a proper sense of craft, attention clearly having been voraciously applied to the movie’s surface. It helps that “47 Ronin” achieves a suitably sweeping sensibility, pushing its characters through just enough lavishly wrought locales to inherit impressive scale, all backed by a traditional but enthusiastic score. If the film did indeed cost as much as some have speculated (projections range from $150-200 million) then at least the dough is up there for all to see, bolstering Rinsch’s work with generous lashings of gloss.

The screenplay is broadly plotted, with little focus applied to any mythology or context that isn’t utterly essential for coherence. As fantasies go “47 Ronin” isn’t fresh or innovative, but the grandeur of its aesthetic helps fill the duller beats with awe, and it would be foolish to claim the movie enjoys no scripting success. The end proves strangely powerful, and whilst rote characterisation hampers some performances (including a wooden Reeves); the film’s odder fascinations helpfully inform others. Rinko Kikuchi is slinky, menacing and incredibly sexy as the witch at the heart of Kira’s scheming, channelling the ethereal and overt visual designs into her playfully seductive turn. Similarly Hiroyuki Sanada (as the chief Ronin) engages comfortably with themes of stoicism and nobility that run through Samurai life, lending the film’s cultural component further value. Without ever trying too hard, Sanada runs rings around his A-list co-star.

“47 Ronin” is hugely imperfect, but it’s not some sort of grossly overwrought holocaust. Dramatically its successes are muted, but there’s no denying the worth of the feature’s pristinely formed exterior; and thanks to an abundance of acceptable action it’s rarely boring. The affair certainly leads me to believe Carl Rinsch might be capable of something special in the future; maybe when he comes into possession of a clearer narrative map and less obviously limited leading man. “47 Ronin” isn’t the disgrace some industry insiders and media types are labelling it – in fact – it’s a slightly better than average Holiday blockbuster. If you can stomach silly, there’s junky Hollywood buzz to be absorbed here.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

21 December 2013

The Best Films of 2013

About a week ago I published my worst films of 2013. It’s always a fun exercise for a film fanatic, allowing you an arbitrary mechanism to shame the year’s most repellent fare. I delayed my best of list in order to embrace a few extra titles for consideration, yet the pool from which my choices have been drawn is far from definitive. Whether it be issues with releasing (12 Years a Slave and American Hustle for example aren't widely available in the UK until 2014) or simple negligence (I’m ashamed to say even with an 11 month grace period I never caught-up with Lincoln) some celebrated flicks slipped through the cracks. Still, a selection of nearly 100 titles should be sufficient – and that’s what I've got – so it’s all dandy. Same two rules as every year apply. To be in consideration you must be a feature length movie and have enjoyed an initial release in the UK during 2013 on at least one platform. That’s it. Let’s see what 2013 came up with. 

Honourable Mentions: Oblivion, Evil Dead, Prisoners, Pacific Rim, Byzantium, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,The Kings of Summer, Enough Said 

10. Rush  
Dir: Ron Howard

A poor box-office showing stateside has dampened this biopic’s chances of making a substantial awards impact, but it’s a technical and thespian master class none the less. Howard’s film brings the rivalry between F1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt to life with feeling and passion, bolstered by a pair of very complimentary turns from Daniel Bruhl and Chris Hemsworth. The 70s period detail and dangers of high-stakes racing are captured marvellously and often with harrowing visual consequence, whilst Anthony Dodd Mantle’s cinematography expands on the arresting frame compositions he turned in on Danny Boyle’s “Trance”. Howard jettisons the worthy confines biopic conformity often enforces, constructing a film filled with daring, sex appeal and heart; nicely wrapped up with an aesthetic that’s appropriately all about speed and noise. A fine example of quality mainstream fare that makes good on its lofty humanist ambitions. 

9. The Spectacular Now 
Dir: James Ponsoldt

This coming of age story received a very slight UK release back in October (a further expansion might occur in 2014) but it was a big hitter at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, the picture marks James Ponsoldt’s follow-up to his respectable alcoholism drama “Smashed”; booze once again undertaking a pivotal role in this tale of an unlikely romance between high-schoolers. The young leads form both believable characters and a faultless chemistry – the film skilfully morphing from light entertainment into something deeply morose and illuminating by the finish. Ponsoldt and his screenwriters display an excellent grasp of warm storytelling and wit, but it’s the gentle way which this tender gem stealthily touches you that makes it so memorable. “The Spectacular Now” is an unpretentious and beautifully formed window overlooking turbulent adolescent transition. 

8. The Great Gatsby 
Dir: Baz Luhrmann

This gregarious adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated prose proved very divisive, but also monetarily lucrative. Luhrmann makes good on his reputation for showboating with the fizzy visuals and modernist soundtrack, but his decadent aesthetic proves a solid match for the book’s thesis on hedonism, the story losing little punch in transition from page to screen. DiCaprio does some of his best work ever in the titular role, encapsulating an array of intricacies and subtleties in depicting a tragically flawed literary icon. It’s an acquired taste without doubt, but for those who appreciate Luhrmann’s sensorial bombast; this is a classic narrative faithfully brought to life with vibrancy and reverence. “The Great Gatsby” was the summer’s most enchanting offering. 

7. Pain & Gain 
Dir: Michael Bay

Another audience splitter I unabashedly adored. Michael Bay’s body-building comedy deconstructs modern American values with ruthless efficiency, depicting a country overrun by greed and an appalling misunderstanding of what it means to chase the “American Dream”. Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson give knowingly excellent performances, whilst the plot zips forward with purpose, humour and enough edge to fill two traditional R-rated movies. I’m not sure if this is Bay apologising for past mistakes or simply embracing his suspect vision to the max, but his distinctive style and cinematic fascinations form a perfect synergy with the script’s rancid insights. It’s also pound for pound the funniest movie of the year. 

6. Django Unchained
Dir: Quentin Tarantino 

The UK release calendar meant we didn't get to see QT’s latest until January, thusly rolling up in my list 12 months later than most. It’s still an exploitation-tinted treasure worth celebrating, Tarantino forming an exquisite western out of his slave turned bounty hunter narrative. The usual Tarantino tropes are there, including off-colour comedy, hyper-violence and extensive cine-literacy, but he also ports over the playful aura of historical winking nailed in 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds”. As usual he takes an eclectic cast and extracts strangely awesome performances across the board, particularly in relation to Leonardo DiCaprio and an Oscar winning Christoph Waltz. Long may this second coming of Quentin hold strong. 

5. What Richard Did 
Dir: Lenny Abrahamson

Adapted from Irish author Kevin Power’s harrowing “Bad Day at Black Rock”, “What Richard Did” is one of the most disarming and quietly brutal films I’ve seen for some time. After making a severe drunken misjudgement, star schoolyard athlete Richard is faced to come to terms with reality, tossing aside the compliments and cheers that have defined his adolescent years. Harsh, honest and heart-breaking, the movie finds its soul in the form of Jack Reynor, essaying a young man on the brink of collapse with maturity and spectacular assurance. Lenny Abrahamson keeps the runtime tight and the visual palette grounded, allowing for the severity of the situation to imprint itself without interference. Reynor’s contribution guides the moral compass with upsetting certainty, forcing viewers to ask an assortment of introspective and uncomfortable questions. 

4. Stoker 
Dir: Chan-Wook Park

Chan-Wook Park is no stranger to onscreen savagery and with his English language debut “Stoker” the film-maker pours it on and then some. Sharing more than a fleeting resemblance to Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt”, “Stoker” sees Matthew Goode’s mysterious and mercurial uncle figure invade the space of a mother and daughter, with extraordinarily heated results. The plotting is simplistic in a pulpy sort of way, the real richness coming from Park’s imagery and the tension that mounts throughout with almost unstoppable bravado. Violence and warped sexuality tinge the piece marvellously, Park’s eye for the macabre making it as much a treat for the senses as it is an endurance test for the pulse. In many ways it’s the most fundamentally basic movie on my list, but in others it’s an incredibly layered and complex freak-show, an icy and gripping thriller laced with seductive unease and tangible anger. It’s a pity more people didn't’t respond to this one. 

3. The Place Beyond the Pines 
Dir: Derek Cianfrance

At a hefty 140 minutes “The Place Beyond the Pines” feels suitably epic in scale, Derek Cianfrance using his sophomore stint behind the camera to explore the labyrinth complexities of fathers and sons. Shot and scored atmospherically, the movie divides very cleanly into three separate acts, all connected via criminal acts and blood bonds. Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Dean DeHaan serve up career topping work, engaging fluidly with Cianfrance’s understated approach. Some have accused the movie of uneven structure, but that wasn't a problem for me, the obvious breaks allowing for a run toward a stark yet affecting finish. Amid the drama and action Cianfrance takes the time to muse on issues of identity, class and corruption, without ever suffocating the animalistic heartbeat at his story’s core.

2. Nebraska 
Dir: Alexander Payne

Another film about fathers and sons, “Nebraska” chooses a more grounded route, but none the less leaves a mighty impression. Bruce Dern and Will Forte are wonderful as a Dad and his boy travelling across country to collect dubious sweepstake winnings, coming to discover untold amounts about their ancestry and each other. Payne balances comedy and pathos neatly, allowing “Nebraska” to emanate tender truth from every frame, given that extra burst of nostalgic value thanks to some glorious black and white design. For a movie so preoccupied with the past, it’s fascinating to observe “Nebraska” avoiding any semblance of saccharine cowardice – instead opting for melancholy and hard earned catharsis. “Nebraska” is a meaningful approximation of heritage and generational divide.

1. Gravity
Dir: Alfonso Cuaron 

Well there could only be one. Alfonso Cuarón's “Gravity” may be soft in terms of story, but no movie tried harder technically or thematically this year. Stunning sound design and cinematography aside, the film managed to take the 3D fad to new heights, creating an eerie environment saturated with nothingness, easily the most realistic and visceral interpretation of the solar system yet encountered. As the astronaut desperately trying to get back home, Sandra Bullock is at her best, coordinating her natural charms to exacerbate a sense of isolation and fear. The human element is broad but delicately massaged into the feature, allowing Cuaron the scope with which to assess ideas of faith, nationality and human courage. The action sequences are also captivatingly suspenseful, bringing real blockbusting credibility to Cuarón's sensitive and remarkable art-house veneer. With its 13 minute, unbroken opening shot “Gravity” reels its audience in using lush audacity, before dragging them to hell and back with its phenomenally rendered depiction of despair. For sheer daring-do and ambition, it’s the film of the year by a long shot.

An Article by Daniel Kelly, 2013

Movie Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues



Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues 
2013, 119mins, 15
Director: Adam McKay 
Writer (S): Adam McKay, Will Ferrell 
Cast includes: Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, Meagan Good, Dylan Baker, James Marsden, Christina Applegate, Kristen Wiig
UK Release Date: 19th December 2013

The legend commenced in 2004, and now nearly ten years later Adam McKay and Will Ferrell have seen fit to flesh out further chapters in the career of newscaster supreme Ron Burgundy. The vainglorious imbecile remains Ferrell’s most enduring cinematic creation -and for good reason- his original adventure representing the benchmark for recent absurdist jesting. Resuscitating the character for another spin on the feature length merry-go-round, “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” transplants Burgundy and his news team into the 80s,  once again forgoing plot in favour of inspired ridiculousness. The novelty has long since worn off, and Ferrell’s shtick has become a Hollywood staple, but the imaginative laughs flow freely, with some journalistic awareness tossed in for deal sweetening purposes. “Anchorman 2” isn’t its forefather, but the film represents the best sequel anybody could’ve reasonably anticipated.

After being fired by his idol (Harrison Ford in just one of the movie’s assorted cameos), Ron Burgundy’s (Will Ferrell) life turns to mush; his marriage to Veronica (Christina Applegate) breaking down over professional jealously and his career dissipating over increasing lack of tact. With things trundling in a very dark direction, Ron’s salvation arrives in the form of a job offer from GNN, the first 24-hour news network. Recruiting his old Channel 4 buddies to face the NYC-set challenge, an invigorated Ron arrives to find himself shoved into a lacklustre 2am time-slot and with ambitious, assured, African-American Linda (Meagan Good) as his boss. The Dinosaur is initially disturbed by these developments, but as he and the news team get to work, they find themselves redefining broadcast journalism in very overt ways.

Director Adam McKay has pulled off some marvellous feats of mainstream comedy over the years (“Step Brothers” and “The Other Guys”) but 2004’s “Anchorman” remains the jewel in his film-making crown. For Ferrell the situation is much the same (although his reputation is a little more chequered), rendering the prospect of “Anchorman 2” either an act of brazen bravery or monetarily driven idiocy. Thankfully the follow-up is a scatter-shot delight, primed with palpable energy and creative dynamism; devoted to the intelligent arts of unpredictable irreverence and knowingly moronic showboating. The love that its’ creators harbour for these fictitious entities is evident in every raging moment of improvised lunacy. Craftsmanship and care has been applied to “Anchorman 2” from all angles, heartily preserving the tonality of part one without sacrificing its own identity as a continuation.

There’s not much point in dissecting the performances; they’re all stellar. Ferrell’s Burgundy remains a strangely lovable pig, and the actor’s knack for line delivery and disorganised genius hasn’t much muted over the years. Similarly it’s a hoot to have the old vanguard of Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner and Applegate back in the mix, each as sharp and exuberant as the next. It’s possible that “Anchorman 2” devotes a little too much time to Carell’s Brick (the runaway star of the initial foray) and his courting of an equally dim-witted GNN employee (a brilliantly blank Kristen Wiig), but that only affords Rudd and Koechner the chance to pilfer scenes this time around, working the outskirts of scenes frantically and with a clear ear for a particular strain of jocose interjection. The newcomers are solid, although maybe not as endearingly quotable as the original reprobates. The highlight is probably a game Meagan Good, fiery and essential to Burgundy’s increased befuddlement with the accelerating cultural developments of the 80s. She shares fun chemistry with Ferrell, together keeping their shared scenes buoyant and amusing. Less on form is the usually solid James Marsden as a handsome rival, failing to match the tempo of his co-stars or counterpoint from the last outing (Vince Vaughn’s Wes Mantooth). Marsden is a likable and hip performer, but he never feels totally at ease in McKay and Ferrell’s bizarre wheelhouse.

The evolution of contemporary media standards fuels the spoofing, Ron and his cohorts gleaning all kinds of success from junk reporting and sensationalist fluff, with nods to ethical corporate practise also underlined humorously. McKay and Ferrell aren't content to merely repeat previous beats (although this film’s celebrity laden street rumba blows the last incarnation’s equivalent out of the water), there’s a palpable attempt to try new things and imbue the product with a more concrete essence of satire. It’s much appreciated, as the narrative is no more focused, throwing characters and scenarios across the breadth of New York in pursuit of laughs; almost like some sort of overgrown SNL themed Frankenstein’s Monster. The third act gets especially messy, but despite the absence of storytelling precision it’s always riotously funny.  A 10 minute detour into Ron’s raising of a fragile shark is unnecessary, but when it comes complete with a musical number and some of the movie’s most berserk imagery, I imagine viewers with a funny-bone will let the editorial indulgence slide.

The additional polish that McKay exhibited with “The Other Guys” is handily retained, granting “Anchorman 2” a larger scope and nicer appearance than its modestly budgeted predecessor.  In the last few years McKay has expressed an interest in moving away from comedy and tackling something a little straighter, a notion I wouldn't be adverse to. This, his fifth film (and collaboration with Ferrell) continues a streak of goofy triumphs that will only last so long, the fact he’s carried off such an expectation heavy sequel with aplomb only heightening the chances of an emergent comedic turkey in the future. Ferrell on the other hand might be incapable of little else than different shades of Burgundy, but in the case of “Anchorman 2” he and McKay have honoured their legacies and fans with a witty, crazed and smart extension of the Channel 4 mythology. It might be time to try something else, but that doesn't mean “Anchorman 2” isn’t a joy from start to finish.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

18 December 2013

Movie Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty



The Secret Life of Walter Mitty 
2013, 114mins, 12
Director: Ben Stiller 
Writer: Steve Conrad 
Cast includes: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn, Patton Oswalt, Shirley MacLaine 
UK Release Date: 26th December 2013 

It’s easy to forget that when he’s not clowning around with anthropomorphic museum exhibits or a shameless Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller is a mainstream film-maker of worth. 1994’s “Reality Bites” was a patchy introduction to directorial duty for the comedian, but his subsequent efforts (“The Cable Guy”, “Zoolander” and “Tropic Thunder”) have all been jovial and often ballsy laughers; boasting commentary and intelligence beneath the guffaws. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” observes Stiller journeying a straighter path, remaking a 1947 Danny Kaye vehicle with extensive degrees of 21st Century polish. Stiller can’t fully detach himself from the practise of screen comedy, but this light-hearted and staggeringly pretty addition to his burgeoning filmography displays heightened artistry and storytelling ambition from the man formally known as Gaylord Focker.

“Life” magazine is preparing to publish its final print edition, the concluding touch being an essential image courtesy of legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) for the cover. When Sean’s work reaches the office, the crucial still is missing, with technician and chronic day-dreamer Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) likely to take the blame. Inspired by secretive crush Cheryl (a smiley Kristin Wiig), Walter decides to forgo fantasy and embark on a real adventure, heading to Greenland in search of the elusive O’Connell. The photojournalist proves tricky to find, but on the hunt Walter undergoes challenges even his startling imagination would struggle to realise.

 A vast array of film-makers have attempted to remake “Walter Mitty” over the last twenty years, chief amongst them big-hitters  like Steven Spielberg, Gore Verbinski and Ron Howard. It’s strange then that Stiller- still relatively green despite debuting almost two decades ago -should be the candidate to successfully bring the character back to cinemas. While it would be remiss to label “Tropic Thunder” a small film, Stiller has never traversed a production with the surface demands of “Walter Mitty”, the story primed with fantastical imagery and scenery literally ripped from a man’s imagination. Stiller copes remarkably well, bringing finesse and confidence to the movie’s larger sequences, never diluting its whimsical voice throughout the array of preposterous internal detours. He also creates a gorgeous look for the feature, collaborating with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, cultivating a realist beauty in the natural environments and a flighty sense of wonderment within Walter’s eternal reverie. The aesthetics are innocently seductive, allowing viewers to become immersed in Stiller’s warm vision, mixing spectacle with homespun charm across the plot’s impressive geographical expanse.

There’s room for a tighter edit, but it doesn’t take Stiller long to establish a relaxed flow and gently grab audience attention. “Walter Mitty” is a fundamentally pleasant story, with a fundamentally pleasant lead for a fundamentally pleasant time of year. Its bagginess would maybe prove distracting during the steamier summer months, but as a festive release “Walter Mitty” works, dispelling a plethora of upbeat messages and a pervading cosiness. Stiller doesn’t ignore the human elements; forming characters on an admittedly broad scale, but allowing winning performances to ensnare our sympathies. The support (including Patton Oswalt, Adam Scott, Sean Penn and a likable Kristen Wiig) do a fine job of helping to develop the titular figure, brought to life with typical underplayed panache by Stiller. His leading turn isn’t as showy as his direction, but it neatly secures the picture’s fate as an appealing serving of Hollywood confection with a subdued yet discernibly affecting presence at the core. There’s an unassuming and fanciful day-dreamer in all of us, Stiller’s everyman charisma ensuring such identifiable tissue isn’t fractured during the viewing process.

 The movie never completely separates itself from Stiller’s jocose comfort-zone, often scoping out brazen laughs during the more dynamic set-pieces. It’s amusing to watch Scott and Stiller embark on a crazy inner-city chase or to have Wigg and the lead simulate a surreal, alternative “Benjamin Button”, but these moments do sit a little uneasily alongside the more openly sincere dramatic beats. It instigates slight tonal uncertainty in the first two acts, although Stiller clears the air with a finish that concisely and warm-heartedly extols the movie’s thematic preoccupations. On the surface “Walter Mitty” is clearly about ensuring flighty dreams don’t interfere with the promise of reality, although the addition of Penn’s smooth photographer suggests the director’s relationship with cinema might be a pertinent subtext. It’s important to remember that Stiller was born into a showbiz family and initiated his acting career at an early age – the movie’s soulful introspection proving an intriguing parallel to a life lived almost entirely through fiction. It’s pure speculation of course, but the climax is formed with such sturdy craftsmanship that I suspect the issue factored in on at least a subconscious level.

“Walter Mitty” marks maturation in its creator (even if it’s to a lesser extent than promotional materials teased), presenting an explosive and suitably heartfelt rendition of the tale. It’s not a deeply nuanced effort, but Stiller has sculpted it with feeling and an assured hand, allowing the script’s knowingly unsophisticated endpoint to land with grin-inducing aplomb. Stiller remains an encouraging presence behind the camera, “Walter Mitty” another showcase of his indisputable talents.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

15 December 2013

Movie Review: Walking with Dinosaurs 3D



Walking with Dinosaurs 3D
2013, 87mins, U
Director (s): Barry Cook, Neil Nightingale 
Writer: John Collee 
Cast includes: Justin Long, John Leguizamo, Karl Urban, Charlie Rowe, Skyler Stone
UK Release Date: 19th December 2013

“Walking with Dinosaurs 3D” is probably the most expensive Saturday morning cartoon you’ll ever see. Budgeted at $85 million, the film is vibrantly detailed with a plethora of believably rendered CGI beasts, but its sub-“Lion King” template and eye-rolling fascination with poop humour sully the picture’s ambition to be taken seriously as an educational tool. Regurgitating a familiar underdog routine, “Walking with Dinosaurs 3D” might satisfy the very young, but anybody older than 8 is liable to be left bored and embarrassed by its simple-minded plot machinations and unending obsession with Mesozoic rear-ends.

Set in the late cretaceous period, “Walking with Dinosaurs” follows Patchi (Justin Long) a young Pachyrhinosaurus on the journey from youth to adulthood. Traversing huge swathes of country in line with migratory habit, Patchi and his herd encounter a diverse range of alternative species, feeding alongside other docile herbivores and evading monstrous predators. Accompanied by his winged pal Alex (John Leguizamo) Patchi strives to become a respected member of the Pachyrhinosaurus community, hoping to win the heart of female Juniper (Tiya Sircar) and respect of cocksure sibling Scowler (Skyler Stone).

The production notes cite the acclaimed 1999 BBC miniseries of the same name as an influence, but the documentary aesthetic that dictated its televisual predecessor has been jettisoned in favour of something more Disneyfied. “Walking with Dinosaurs 3D” certainly looks the part with its professionally rendered creatures and impressive depth of field, but the plot trajectory feels recycled and rushed. Very little character development takes place, yet the movie clearly wants to be more than a special effects show reel, wedging in recycled story beats and “Land Before Time” style drama to create the illusion of legitimate storytelling. I’m not sure whether laziness or lack of confidence is to blame for the generic nature of the set-up, but either way the results are frustrating. A pleasant visual experience becomes corrupted through monotonous screenwriting and cheap comedy, the film incorporating oodles of juvenile humour into its tonally uncertain structure. One poop joke might have been forgivable, but the film becomes positively committed to churning out an array of witless bodily function gags, even during moments of supposed threat. When a solidly crafted T-Rex-esque antagonist is attempting to chomp its way toward the heroes, is a fart gag really the way to go? I’d have thought no, but the film-makers clearly have other ideas.

The characters appear to communicate through some sort of telepathy (none of their mouths ever move to match dialogue) which seems like a conflict between Hollywood and an attempt to remain reverent toward its realist source. It’s a distracting addition that cheapens an otherwise lavishly arranged movie, filled with well photographed landscapes and diligently applied 3D. Technically I can’t lobby many complaints in the film’s direction; helmers Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale handling the scope and digital demands of the concept adequately. They certainly don’t share an expert grasp of storytelling or understanding of emotionally accessible characterization, but they've painted a believable prehistoric universe.

The picture uses a framing device involving a misplaced Karl Urban trying to convince his niece and nephew that Dinosaurs are cool. It’s unconvincingly played and pretty unnecessary, but it cements the film’s mandate as a schoolroom device coated in top tier FX lustre. Urban eventually succeeds in extolling the majesty of the past to his young companions, something “Walking with Dinosaurs 3D” never smoothly accomplishes. With a handful of popular family oriented blockbusters already on release, I imagine this thing will go extinct fast. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

12 December 2013

The Worst Films of 2013

It’s still a bit early to publish my list of 2013’s best movies (I still have to squeeze in last minute viewings of a few notable candidates) but it’s about that time of year where the worst films of the year deserve to be shamed. Like most years 2013 has been patchy at the multiplex, boasting more than its fair share of dogs. Movies that just missed a place on this ignoble list include Marvel’s empty-calorie sequel “Thor: The Dark World”, colossal box-office turkey “R.I.P.D” and Aubrey Plaza’s painful anti-comedy “The To Do List”. All of those movies sucked unequivocally (although “The Dark World” is somehow sporting a 65% Rotten Tomatoes score – truly bemusing) but even they weren't shoddy enough to make the final cut. So without further ado, let’s go. Here are the worst films of 2013.

Dishonourable Mentions: Thor: The Dark World, R.I.P.D, The To Do List, The Canyons, The Call 

10. Maniac
Director – Franck Khalfoun
Rotten Tomatoes Score – 47%

A truly soulless slasher, coated in blood, misogyny and ugly cinematography, with only some inventive POV shots to prevent it from falling further down this list. As a serial killer with severe psychological issues Elijah Wood is too soft and forced to convince, dialling up a clichéd, snivelling weirdo routine to help compensate for the fact he’s virtually never onscreen. Franck Khalfoun would probably argue his picture gives insights into the fractured mind of a victim turned perpetrator, but in reality it’s a hollow, unexciting and exploitative exercise in genre semantics. “Maniac” has nothing to say of any substance, gratuitous nudity and violence being the unfortunate fall-back devices. 

9. Mama
Director – Andreas Muschietti
Rotten Tomatoes Score – 66%  

As a horror fan nothing pleases me more than a good old fashioned ghost story, replete with creaking floorboards, spectral menace and scream queen casting. On the surface “Mama” purports to boast all these things, yet few films have tested my patience more this year.  An endurance test from the offset, “Mama” confuses the uninspired with homage, serving up a story stuffed to the brim with predictable scares and unlikable characters, including a cold and unappealing Jessica Chastain. According to its distributors the movie runs for a reasonable 100 minutes, but it feels infinitely longer and less rewarding in the moment. Tired and terminally unexciting, “Mama” is good only for the bed-wetting contingent.

8. Man of Steel
Director: Zach Snyder
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 56%

Zach Snyder indulges all of his worst tendencies here. His attempts to humanise Superman during the opening hour are noble but fail miserably, recycling the tortured soul routine with zero editorial rhythm or interest. The second and third acts are crushingly awful, ramping up the hollow videogame aesthetic, underlining the lack of humanity as characters and cities are decimated inconsequentially by legions of CGI action figures. The ending provides no catharsis – quite something given that Snyder attempts to utilise the hero’s paternal and romantic relationships in pursuit of a beating heart. He never finds one and the journey to the climax is utterly exhausting – forcing us to spend far too much screen-time with undefined supporting players. Beyond his stacked physique, Henry Cavill doesn't cut it in the titular role. 

7. Olympus Has Fallen
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 48%

“White House Down” may have tanked, but it was certainly 2013’s superior White House invasion thriller. This nasty substitute has a charmless Gerard Butler doing an awful John McClane impersonation, whilst Aaron Eckhart whinges unbearably in the background. Humourless with a sour streak running through its knife-centric combat, “Olympus Has Fallen” dumbly attempts to convey a sense of global awareness through its use of Korean villains. It’s a brash move, but not one supported by Fuqua’s obsession with cheap, bloody money-shots and nails on a blackboard style dialogue. Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo and Ashley Judd all coast embarrassingly in tiny fringe parts, lending gravitas only to the film’s marketing campaign. Nobody’s good enough to actually imbue this unfortunate creation with legitimate artistic integrity after all. 

6. Texas Chainsaw
Director: John Luessenhop
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 19%

Now we’re getting to the really stinky stuff. Another unnecessary extension of a once proud genre legacy, “Texas Chainsaw” was clearly pieced together with no passion or understanding of the Tobe Hooper original. The film’s pedestrian set-pieces and Abercrombie cast actively offend, with incredibly dumb gaps in logic keeping the thing strung together. Nobody behaves like a real person, whilst John Luessenhop’s mechanical direction is a million miles away from the 70s grunge of Hooper’s nightmare. You’ll see where it’s all headed long before the movie wants you to, but it doesn't make the twist ending any less egregious. 

5. G.I Joe: Retaliation
Director: Jon Chu
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 28%

Probably the year’s least demanded sequel, the long-delayed “Retaliation” finally arrived in March to bore audiences worldwide. Contrived plotting and thin characters are a given, but director Jon Chu ladles on incomprehensible action, vanilla production design and casual sexism for further devastating effect. At no point does the film’s story begin to engage, rendering both Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis as talking props. It’s the wet-dream of an especially unimaginative 12-year old boy, brought to life with a fetish for CGI and insanely loud noises. Channing Tatum was wise to get out when he did.

4. A Belfast Story
Director: Nathan Todd Sims
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 14 %

As somebody who holds Belfast very close to his heart, this atrocity was beyond disappointing. Packed with dopey, flighty monologues and no sense of purpose, this cheerless tale of community division makes most late-night TV procedurals looks like intricately constructed noirs. Colm Meaney sleepwalks through the plot, whilst Nathan Sims’s direction lacks polish or style. On a purely superficial level it’s easily the most amateurish picture 2013 offered; that it received a cinema release in the UK – no matter how limited – is deeply confusing. 

3. Movie 43
Director: Various
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 4%

A bevy of stars including Hugh Jackman, Richard Gere and Justin Long have all publically distanced themselves from this comedy anthology. Nearly a full year on, no film has quite managed to incense the critical community like “Movie 43”, an indulgent and surreally unfunny parade of fart, sex and poop jokes. Constructed with a witless framing device, the film seemingly exists only to to embarrass its cast and directors, all of whom turn in career worst work. It’s hard to select a concrete nadir, but watching Chloe Grace Moretz fret over a period (interesting that she also headlined a subpar “Carrie” retread this year) or Chris Pratt try to shit on Anna Faris for sexual pleasure are difficult to top for sheer miscalculated awfulness.The film attempts several jokes per minute and barely lands a giggle. That’s an appalling batting average. 

2. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 15%

Based on the trailers this ramshackle fantasy had potential, but in execution it’s a direly pieced together escapade. In the leading roles both Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner look dazed, shuffling through cheap sets and feeble storytelling. Wirkola’s directorial work is inept and artistically meritless. “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” isn't just a poorly made movie, it’s a feature that wrestles with basic cinematic literacy. It has no over-arching tone. Scenes and subplots collapse around each other, denying the picture an editorial identity. The action is messily assembled and more often than not incomprehensible. The dweeb from “Project X” disturbingly fondles Arterton’s assets whilst she is unconscious and laughs at an innocent man exploding in a cloud of viscera. Tasteless and truly thankless to endure. 

1. Grown Ups 2
Director: Dennis Dugan
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 7%

A hideous creation that renders its lacklustre forefather a masterpiece by comparison. Aiming to advertise supermarket chains, encourage mild racism and cultivate a repugnant relationship with the fairer sex, “Grown Ups 2” isn't just incompetent and mirthless, it’s also deeply troubling. Watching a selection of once talented middle-aged men (except Kevin James – he was never talented) slum it for easy cash is bad enough, but observing the crass levels to which they’ll sink for a buck is disgusting. Sandler prostitutes his brand shamelessly, barely bothering to register any shred of narrative, instead forcing the action to traverse a series of urine soaked skits. Sickening sentimentally and a masturbatory attitude toward middle-class, nuclear life are all that matter here. Except boobs. Boy howdy does “Grown Ups 2” love boobies. Not women. Just boobs. Maybe “Movie 43” wasn't so bad. 

An Article by Daniel Kelly, 2013

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug



The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 
2013, 161mins, 12
Director: Peter Jackson 
Writer (s): Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Guillermo Del Toro, J.R.R Tolkien (novel) 
Cast includes: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, Luke Evans
UK Release Date: 13th December 2013

There are some truly inspired sequences in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”, the follow-up to last year’s underwhelming “An Unexpected Journey” and the second instalment in Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth revisited trilogy. The first film was hampered by cumbersome pacing and effete structuring; only finding rhythm in its latter action beats. “The Desolation of Smaug” admittedly has the benefit of the clunky exposition which defined its bloated sibling, but also a more engaged director, allowing personality to spill more freely into the feature. With an abundance of new characters and locales to work with, Peter Jackson seems refreshed, delivering beautifully choreographed and cheekily macabre set-pieces reminiscent of his pre-Tolkien career. There’s still no excuse for the picture’s 161 minute running and the screenplay’s subplots are of an uneven calibre; but visually “The Desolation of Smaug” is an absolute delight. It’s a sprightly and excitable blockbuster, powered by a newfound aura of purpose.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) remains in the company of Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves, together trying to evade the legion of Orcs hunting them across Middle-Earth. The group move through the territories of both men and elves, finding little hospitality as they continue in their quest to reclaim the Dwarfish kingdom of Erebor from the infamous dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Meanwhile Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has become increasingly disturbed by the movements of a dark presence forming in Dol Guldur, a sinister development that might have something to do with a piece of jewellery now in Bilbo’s possession.

The entire conception of this “Hobbit” trilogy has always been an odd one. Those familiar with Tolkien’s works will be aware that “The Hobbit” is minor in comparison to the colossal “Rings” saga, yet Jackson appears entirely committed to morphing the text into a comparably sweeping cinematic odyssey. The initial film’s ambition far exceeded his grasp, allowing huge passages of time to filter away with only a fraction of the action or energy required to support such a hulking frame, filling the cracks with unconvincing subplots and weak attempts to form supporting characters. “The Desolation of Smaug” isn’t entirely free of these problems either. In trying to forge a segue way between his separate bouts in Middle-Earth the film-maker does get distracted, concocting an uninteresting love triangle involving two elves (including a returning Orlando Bloom) and by allowing his inner fan to run amok without structural control. One of the things Jackson did so shrewdly with “The Lord of the Rings” was to make critical edits in the adaptation process, always letting story and character define the movies, side-lining cherished elements of Tolkien’s universe when necessary. That enviable skill is lacking here, Jackson still content to pad out “The Desolation of Smaug” with references and homage (including many allusions to his “Rings” pictures); his absorption in the fantasy realm often chequering the narrative’s drive. I’m sure there are viewers who will relish the chance to see Beorn the werebear realised on screen, or to hear direct horticulture related lines from “The Fellowship of the Ring” ported over in the name of fan service, but really, do these additions serve the plot trajectory or help justify the gargantuan time investment?

“The Desolation of Smaug” harbours an enlarged scope and heighted imagination, allowing Jackson to tinker with a variety of different sets. Most are brilliantly devised, the highlights being the gothic ruins of Dol Guldur and Smaug’s lair, the latter meticulously designed and replete with seamless digitals. It’s no surprise that these more imposing locations are where the director feels most at home, his penchant for the horror genre shining through in the use of tension and knowingly gruesome combat asides. There’s a knowing craziness to the way Jackson pieces together the big moments here, the most infectious being a riverside shootout between elves and orcs, with the heroes whizzing down the current in barrels. Not only does it look spectacular, but Jackson’s long-takes, vibrant frame construction and fondness for comical decapitation breathes life into the movie, complete with an improved use of 3D technology. We’re not talking “Gravity” levels of intuition here, but the increased fizz and savagery of the action does translate quite effectively into the third dimension, especially when the director insists on building momentum through a very mobile camera.

The old vanguard remain suitably cast, with McKellen and Freeman once again convincing most handily. McKellen has a way of lending every situation legitimate gravitas, whilst Freeman’s light touch and likability retains our sympathy. The new additions are more mixed, performances often aligning with the quality of relevant screenwriting. When the story slips up and meanders into duller territory (I’m talking lakeside town politics and unrequited Elf love) actors struggle, particularly Bloom and a wooden Evangeline Lilly as some of Mirkwood’s finest. Smaug almost steals the film -a creepily designed monster rendered flawlessly by CGI - British thespian Cumberbatch registering cunning, malice and regal stature through his bellowing vocals. The initial encounter between the dragon and hobbit is hugely suspenseful, quiet moments of suggestive dialogue peppered by the beast’s awe-inspiring movements and calculated bursts of anger. Jackson mounts the tension nicely, bringing the movie to a suitable boil before unleashing an epic 30 minutes of cat and mouse chaos in the darkened dwarf halls. It’s wonderful escapist cinema, worthy even of respected sequences from the “Rings” cycle.

“The Desolation of Smaug” is a true spectacle and an absolute pleasure to gaze upon. There’s a richness and loving touch in Jackson’s fantasy imagery that was absent last time around, his passion for entertaining an audience translating far more cleanly here. The screenplay could be tighter and the fanboy tendencies eradicated without much heartbreak, but between the issues of bagginess and self-indulgence there are undoubtedly grandiose triumphs. It’s a gorgeously crafted feature and one that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

10 December 2013

Movie Review: Philomena



2013, 98mins, 15
Director: Stephen Frears 
Writer (S): Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope 
Cast includes: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Charlie Murphy Sophie Kennedy Clark, Simone Lahbib
UK Release Date: 5th November 2013

Ten years ago director Stephen Frears was atop the world, churning out a series of successes on both sides of the Atlantic. Recently the film-maker’s output has taken a less inspired turn; with last year’s universally maligned “Lay the Favourite” an apt representative of his current fortune. “Philomena” resuscitates Frears’ slightly, at least allowing him the benefit of an engaging screenplay and a chance to work with an explosive performer like Judi Dench, the director envisioning a well-crafted sob story with lashings of social angst. It’s no masterpiece, but the feature captures a natural storytelling flow, handling rather dramatic shifts in tone confidently. It’ll probably be your grandmother’s new favourite film.

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is a disgraced government advisor looking to get back to his journalistic roots, hoping to uncover a scintillating puff-piece to rejuvenate his professional standing. By chance he encounters Philomena (Judi Dench) an elderly Irishwoman with a story, that of her lost son Anthony. In her teens Philomena had pre-marital sex; the result a pregnancy out of wedlock. The Nuns in her convent shipped the child off to a mystery family; leaving Philomena to live her life with no knowledge of Anthony’s whereabouts, desperate to ignite a familial connection. Martin agrees to write an article on Philomena’s tale of woe, saddling up with his subject on a trip that takes them from Ireland to America in pursuit of answers.

The film is based on harrowing events and upholds a respectful tone as a consequence, painting a stoic picture of the titular character. Sixsmith’s 2009 memoir is the chief influence, so “Philomena” has been assembled on the pretense of first person authority, yet there’s something inherently Hollywood-ised about the product - perhaps it’s the saintliness the screenplay bestows upon Philomena or indeed the vibrant bounding between comedy and heighted drama - whatever the case it’s no surprise the tale should have found its way onto screens and more tellingly into an awards race. “Philomena” is a finely tuned piece with an absolutely stonking finish, but aside from some graceful theatrics and the outstanding thespian contribution, it all just feels the right side of ordinary. In a year where it has to do battle with “Gravity” and “Nebraska”, “Philomena” is short on dynamism.

The characterisation is faultless, Coogan and chiefly Dench essaying their parts with regal finesse. The latter is probably the closest thing the picture has to a secret weapon, oscillating through a range of subtly articulated moods, culminating in a brave and challenging stand-off with those responsible for her misery. The juxtaposing worldviews of Philomena and Martin form a fundamental strand of the picture’s DNA, helping to structure a jovial chemistry and encourage the exploration of deeper themes. “Philomena” has religion and integrity at its heart, throwing in Martin’s predatory tabloid instincts to further flavour the broth. The movie asks us to appreciate conviction, even if it’s not always in the best interests of everyone, a fascinating stance given the revelations at the movie’s end. It’s not pro-religion or anything of the sort, but the completion of the character arcs and idolisation of Dench’s role lead me to believe it sees true value in having beliefs, not just cynical 21st century intuition.

Frears’ cinematography tends to reflect atmosphere brashly (the tragic end is coated in layers of frost) but “Philomena” does have a polished look and tender score courtesy of Alexandre Desplat. This British production brushes the heartstrings during its smartly constructed 98 minutes, occasionally soliciting a tear or tickling out a laugh. Yet, “Philomena” never generates anything beyond moderate goodwill and a pleasurable viewing experience, leaving its formidable leading lady to sporadically make something special of proceedings.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013 

9 December 2013


Sound-Tracking 2013 #4 - Hans Zimmer


This sound-tracking project is actually becoming a rather amazing way to recalibrate my opinions on the year’s movie music. So far we've tackled hectic 1920s soirees, pensive science-fiction and steroidal morons, leaving today’s instalment to examine one great composer, two lacklustre behemoths but a swathe of exhilarating Hollywood motifs. Today’s picks are tracks from Hans Zimmer’s scores for “Man of Steel” (dreadful movie, awards calibre score) and “The Lone Ranger” (incredibly patchy blockbuster with some great melodic throwbacks). The “Ranger” score definitely works better within the context of the movie, with director Gore Verbinski at least able to afford the piece enough manic tomfoolery to utilise Zimmer’s sweeping compositions effectively. It’s old school serial film-making, and the music is happy to uphold the tradition in thunderously listenable fashion. On the other hand Snyder’s dull and incomprehensibly soulless Superman reboot couldn't be saved by a Will Smith cameo, proof the moon-landing was faked or a real Tyrannosaur Rex being credited among the cast; Zimmer’s music thusly lost in the onerous action and trite pontificating. However when absorbed on its own, the music really captures an electric and epic sensibility, finding Zimmer in inspired genre form. Included below are two samples. 

Finale - The Lone Ranger 

What Are You Going to Do When You're Not Saving the World? - Man of Steel 

8 December 2013

Movie Review: Nebraska



2013, 115mins, 15
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Bob Nelson
Cast includes: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach 
UK Release Date: 6th December 2013

It’s nothing new to cite an upcoming Alexander Payne picture as worth anticipating, but “Nebraska” isn't quite the pure experience cinephiles have come to cherish. Payne is behind the lens for this excursion into a rural and forgotten pasture of modern American history, but the screenplay is credited to Bob Nelson, a notable detour given Payne’s usual authorial presence. “Election, “Sideways” and “The Descendants” all succeeded on the back of their creator’s controlled, touching and natural grasp of everyday drama; rendering “Nebraska” a strange anomaly. After viewing this restrained and masterful feature it’s easy to understand why Payne agreed to helm; Nelson’s story a near perfect fit for the director’s sensibility. It also allows Payne another chance to exhibit his talents for casting and sustaining creative dynamism with actors, drawing wonderful turns from a bevy of thespians, most notably a feisty yet vulnerable Bruce Dern.

Having received a letter from a company in Lincoln naming him as the winner of a $1,000,000 sweepstake, aged and alcohol dependant Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is insistent upon collecting the dough. His wife (played sublimely by June Squibb) and kids are adamant it’s a hoax, preventing Woody from making the journey, until younger son David (Will Forte) capitulates and agrees to take him. Saddling up for a weekend road-trip the pair venture into the heartland of Woody’s youth, encountering faces and places from across the expanse of his lengthy life. Woody remains focused on retrieving the spoils, but for David the expedition gifts him insights into his ancestry that prove shocking, educational and illuminating.

Drenched in nostalgic black and white cinematography, “Nebraska” is a film about the past, setting out its stall early with the appearance of a dated Paramount logo. Nelson’s screenplay provides viewers with a beautiful synergy of character, locale and experience in its exploration of one man’s life, depicting a richly detailed tapestry of 20th century Americana in the process. Everything in the film’s mise-en-scene (including its star) harks back to a bygone era, filling “Nebraska” with roving countryside, traditional printing presses, retro vehicles and a sense of male stoicism no longer fashionable. The feature finds particular interest in contrasting Dern and Forte’s characters, charting clear differences between generational divides. One’s a doer the other’s a considerate talker, a notion explored both through comedy (the natives of Woody’s home find it hysterical how long David takes to drive places) and drama. It’s the latter that feels most rewarding come the film’s end, as David slowly manages to fathom an understanding of his father’s upbringing, finding small justifications for his drinking and churlish behaviour. “Nebraska” never feels the need to spell much out for the viewer, but measured acting and moments of gorgeous clarity provide ample windows into the souls of its characters.

Dern is mesmerizing, bringing distinguished physicality and tangible personality to the lead. Bit parts in films like “The Hole” and “Django Unchained” have formed the backbone of his recent filmography, but here at age 77, he still proves capable of carrying a heavy drama on his shoulders. Despite Woody’s antagonistic and stubborn attitude, Dern manages to inject real weakness into the figure’s frame, both through limping movements and a refusal to take full responsibility for his family’s troubles. It’s a turn that lends itself both gracefully to laughs and moments of introspective awe, Forte’s solid work on the fringes helping to eke out all the pathos possible. Forte is a former SNL goofball more renowned for work on comedies like “MacGruber” and “That’s My Boy”, but here accelerates into sterling dramatic gear, measuredly supporting Dern’s magnificent work without attempting to steal any thunder, It’s a slight, skilled and very generous example of the craft.

Much of the feature unfolds in Woody’s old stomping grounds, allowing Payne to cook a phenomenal community spirit into the production, trapping the whole experience in some sort of 70s wormhole. The film-maker bookends the feature in a more identifiably modern sphere, but the backwoods relatives, trashy boozers and scheming locals that populate “Nebraska” further cement its potential for reflection, rooting the narrative 30 years into the past. Of course the very catalyst for the story (the sweepstake, referred to as the “oldest trick in the book” by a bemused David) concocts a wistful agenda from the start, but the movie’s style and engaging dramatic nuances are the real reason “Nebraska” develops into such a captivating work of retrospection. Maybe it’s a love-letter to the evocative and tortured drama 1970s Hollywood became saturated with, or a throwback to Nelson’s Midwestern heritage, but either way the movie is deeply affecting and faultlessly illustrated.

The father/ son facet takes centre stage come the finish, but that’s justifiable given the contributions made by Dern and Forte. With its enchanting musical score and striking photographic aesthetic, “Nebraska” is a convincing reminiscence on the surface alone, but Nelson’s serene writing and the quality of performance underline it as one of 2013’s most accomplished and distinctive cinematic journeys. Fans of Alexander Payne need not fear, this is another meaningful addition to his triumphant back catalogue. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013